Undisciplined and uncompromising sculptures

Tiziana Casapietra and Richard Hawkins

Tiziana Casapietra: How did this project come about?
Richard Hawkins: Much of my work is based on research that in the end turns into some kind of project. In this case it started with research on Greco-Roman culture that I began during my first trip to Rome three years ago. In Rome there were beautiful sculptures everywhere. I felt really attracted by beauty in three-dimensions and just felt that I should do something with it. My long research on gender and sexuality differences in different cultures and this new attraction to three dimensional sculpture came to kind of a culmination at the Villa Borghese, at the room of the Hermaphrodite. Here the only thing you see is the back side of a beautiful woman whose face is turned toward the wall. You cannot see the face, because there is a barricade that doesn't allow visitors into that room.
The only other sleeping Hermaphrodite that we know of is in the Louvre, where it is installed differently; it's in the middle of the room but you would actually approach it from the same way that you approached the one in the Villa Borghese. Which means that you would see her back side first, but unlike the room being blocked off as in Villa Borghese, in the Louvre you can walk around it where, obviously, the fact that she's not a woman is revealed. This was the interesting thing for me, this is where the gender issues I was researching met up with this interesting sculpture. It's where I realized that the back is actually the front of the sculpture. You do not understand the sculpture until you see around the back of the thing and you start laughing.

TC: So, why do you think they installed it that way?
RH: Because it is vulgar, still, I am sure.
TC: Or maybe they where supposed to be shown that way.
RH: That could be. That's what I can’t find out and that’s what nobody seems to know. We can also imagine the existence of a scenario where these Hermaphrodites had a public side and a private side. It was also interesting for me to think of a history where after about 500 BC large scale sculpture started to walk away from the wall but, it’s funny that even though you can certainly, by the archaic period, give a sculpture a great ass you still wouldn’t necessarily be encouraged to understand it from that direction. There was only one privileged side, only one side with meaning: the face. That’s why these hermaphrodite sculptures were so interesting; the only character in Greco-Roman mythology with 2 genders is perfect for a play between the front and back of sculpture.

TC: And that’s how you decided to do sculptures.
RH: I guess I needed to do something three-dimensionally to realize this project.
TC: Is it the first time you made sculptures?
RH: I have done sculptures in the past, but they’ve all been kind of appropriation scenarios made out of found materials. An expansion of the collage practice.

TC: Why did you choose to use clay?
RH: I have been painting for seven years, and they have only been figurative for about four. They used to be abstract. I know that unlike drawing, particularly with oil paint, if it’s wet I can keep changing a figure until the right figure comes about. I do not have to be good at drawing. I figured that it could be similar with clay, that it would be much easier to find the figure in the thing instead of commissioning someone to do a figure for me or appropriating a figure.

TC: This was the first time you actually made something in ceramic. Were you scared?
RH: Yes! Didn’t I look scared? I had a vague idea. I am good in taking mistakes and turning then upside-down. This worked out very well; it is sort of what I knew from painting. Not that I am so skilled, but clay stays so malleable for so long. Yet, you do have deadlines, you do have only a set amount of time, three days at the most, to keep changing what you have done, you have to make decisions very rapidly.
TC: How did you feel when you actually started to make the sculptures?
RH: The first five or six were experiments to see what I could do. The first thing I discovered, as a beginner, is that without any armature you have limitations in scale. After I figured out all those kind of things I started running through in my mind other sculptures or sculptors that I know like Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Aristide Maillol and other figurative sculptors especially from the ‘40s and ’50s. I had this kind of idea of what modernist figurative sculpture looks like and I wanted something in between, like modernist figurative abstraction plus a really kind of academic/classical version of what beauty is. And then I discovered – for me that was the big discovery – the clayness of the clay. In painting the word facture means that the medium has desired defects.
With the first five or six sculptures I did in ceramic, I kept grooming out the facture, taking out all the holes and the gaps. When I first started painting, I was making lots of mistakes and I was kind of keeping some of them in. But now that I know more about it, I have started to put them aside and this is becoming a problem. They have become tighter. The first thing I did with clay was to have something done within maybe ten minutes, and spend 2 hours taking all the imperfections, grains, out. It took a few days to realize that it is supposed to have this looseness, this lumpiness. It is important to remain looser, more lively or vibrant in order to have some kind of movement; to me the surface movement that clay is able to take is like facture in painting. Gerhard Richter is a perfect example, to have this kind of a grand movement in the painting, but all these little micro movements because of the facture, of the grain of the canvas, the mark of the brushes. Those are what I started leaving in with my later ceramic sculptures.
TC: Are you happy with the final result?
RH: I did not expect them to be so figurative, so kind of recognisable as a figure. I had a very abstract idea of wanting the front to be the back and the back to be the front. I certainly had a realistic appraisal of my lack of skill but I did not want to make them ugly. I would rather make them abstract than have something ugly, inadequately skilled. The skill thing is what surprises me about clay. It is so malleable, you can test and retry, add a little bit here and there. As long as you have some sense of proportion, not talent necessarily, you can have some idea of how the body moves in space. In ten minutes you can come up with something recognizable as a figure. Not that clay is simple, but now that I know more about structural integrity, sense of the evaporation time and limitations of gravity, I will try to work more on trying to push the limits of clay, just its physical limits. It will be a bigger challenge to make even more intricate figurative sculptures.
TC: What about the colour you decided to use for your sculpture, the white matt?
RH: When I was doing research, mostly at the Antiquities Museum in Berlin they had so many terracotta, glazed sculptures that were painted in very simple colours. They were probably polychrome, but over time you see the orange terracotta coming through the white glaze on top. For my sculptures, I wanted the orange of the clay to come through and at the same time I wanted the colour there.
TC: You can easily switch from painting to collage to sculpture. Thus, you could easily be considered “undisciplined”, which for us means the freedom and versatility to cross disciplines and also not to stick to their strict rules. This is something that could also be seen as a very risky approach.
RH: If there is something negative about my practice it is that I might abandon things too easily before taking them to their proper level. But for me it is more interesting to keep playing instead of perfecting. Putting myself in new situations where I do make mistakes: my talent, if I have one, is making the most out of my mistakes. And this is the only way that I know how to work. It’s like keeping challenging myself and keeping myself interested, investigating. It may be risky but I just like the thrill of it.
TC: Are you thrilled by your sculptures?
RH: I am very happy with them. I find them sexy and kind of uncompromising.
TC: It is interesting to note that all artists have a totally different approach. There are artists who are obsessed with precision, and want to control everything.
RH: The first thing I learned within the first few days, is that clay has got limitations. If you do not use the limitations that any medium has, you wouldn’t have facture in painting.
TC: In order to change the medium, you have to be open enough to get involved in this experiment.  Do you think these sculptures still represent you?
RH: Those who only know me as a painter would not recognise them as mine.
TC: And would you recognise yourself?
RH: Yes, different aspects of myself. Sure. That’s what my work is always about. It is like having different interests that somehow induce different formats, as it happens when I make collages, for example, I just follow the interest until it starts to make something.
TC: We always found it very interesting to see how artists who usually work with different medias, say videos, rather then paintings or photographs, manage to translate their poetics in clay.
RH: I think that there is versatility across my career which is the positive way of looking at it. The not so positive way to look at it is complete inconsistency.

TC: I see that as curiosity.
RH: Absolutely. It is not that I get bored that easily. It’s more like I do research and then get inspired by it.
TC: How do you feel now about your sculptures?
RH: They are connected to my original research on gender, on Greek and Roman sexualities and an idea of making a sculpture with a back side that’s really nice to look at. But they also have something about beauty and humour at the same time.
TC: Why humour?
RH: This was the original purpose of the Hermaphrodite sculptures from Greece; erotic representations induced laughter. I think my sculptures are playful that way, they are not too serious, but they could be kitschy, I suppose.

Text published in the catalogue of the 3rd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “Undisciplined” , Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2006.